Jackson Family Expands to Walla Walla Valley, Entering Washington State Winemaking

Landscape photo of Mill Creek Vineyard
Upper Mill Creek Vineyard in Washington's Walla Walla Valley / Photo by V for Vino

California’s Jackson Family Wines announced today that it has purchased 61 acres of an existing 117-acre property in Walla Walla Valley. The site, which was previously owned by Abeja and is located in the Upper Mill Creek area of the valley, is the organization’s first venture into Washington.

“We know Walla Walla Valley is an exceptional region in North America for growing Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah, and this particular site in Mill Creek possesses ideal conditions in terms of soils, elevation and climate,” says Christopher Jackson, second-generation proprietor of Jackson Family Wines.

Chris Jackson in vineyard
Chris Jackson, proprietor, Jackson Family Wines

The property, which is located 1,500 feet above sea level, has a higher elevation relative to most vineyards in the valley. Abeja retains other vineyards in the Mill Creek area, as well as elsewhere in the valley. The site was established in 2016, with 40 acres planted primarily to Cabernet Sauvignon. Abeja will retain ownership of 56 unplanted acres and will continue to receive fruit from existing plantings.

“It’s an incredible site that’s made some of the best Cabernet, if not the best Cabernet, I’ve made in my entire career,” says Dan Wampfler, Abeja head winemaker and general manager, who expressed excitement about the sale. “Having an outstanding winery and vineyard-centric family move not just to Washington State but to Walla Walla and specifically to the Mill Creek area is an incredible affirmation. We’re thrilled.”

Jackson Family purchased grapes from various sites in Walla Walla Valley and elsewhere in Columbia Valley in 2021. Those purchases and fruit from their new site will be used for a to-be-named brand that is currently under development. 

“One of the strengths of our company has always been our diversification,” says Jackson Family Winemaker Chris Carpenter. “We didn’t have a lot of diversity in place for Bordeaux varieties in North America, and Walla Walla has such a great reputation for making killer Cabernets.”

Winemaker Chris Carpenter in vineyard at sunset
Chris Carpenter, winemaker for Jackson Family Wines

Located near the Blue Mountains, Upper Mill Creek is known for its higher elevations and deep, windblown soils. The Figgins family, which established the valley’s first winery Leonetti Cellar in 1977, was the first to plant in Upper Mill Creek, establishing a vineyard there in 1997.

“It’s become quite a popular spot for good reason,” says Chris Figgins, president and winemaking director at Figgins Family Wine Estates. “It’ll be two to three degrees hotter [than other areas of the valley] in the heat of the day, and seven or eight degrees colder at night.” He says this and other factors lead to the site’s distinctive wines.

“The wines that come off that area are kind of big, masculine, tannic, acidic-type wines,” says Figgins. “They’re performing amazingly well in these hotter years that we’re having because it’s cooler up there.”

While the purchase is Jackson Family’s first foray into Washington, the company has shown strong interest in the broader Pacific Northwest in recent years. In 2012, Jackson Family added a Willamette Valley Pinot Noir to its La Crema brand. Since that time the company has established or purchased four wine estates in Willamette Valley: Gran Moraine, Zena Crown Vineyard, Penner-Ash Wine Cellars and WillaKenzie Estate. Jackson Family also currently owns eight vineyards in the valley and farms approximately 1,800 acres there. In addition to its holdings in Oregon, Washington and California, Jackson Family also owns property in Stellenbosch, South Africa, and McLaren Vale, Australia.

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Walla Walla Valley has been drawing increased interest of late from California-based producers and beyond. Napa Valley’s Crimson Wine Group purchased Seven Hills Winery in 2016, while Sonoma’s Vintage Wine Estates purchased Tamarack Cellars in 2018. Canvasback, a Washington brand of Napa Valley’s Duckhorn Vineyards, opened a tasting room in the valley in 2019. Meanwhile Spain’s Bodegas Valdemar built a multi-million dollar winery in 2019, Valdemar Estates, and is currently establishing vineyards in the area. Numerous other out-of-state producers are rumored to be poking around the valley, which is already home to over 120 wineries and tasting rooms.

“I think the sheer quality of the wines just beg the attention,” says Figgins. “That and the cultural richness of the place. I think [the interest] is only going to accelerate.”

Jackson Family’s entrance is sure to impact Walla Walla Valley, along with increased investment from other producers throughout Washington.

“I think it kind of puts us in the big leagues a little bit that we have significant brands like this coming into Washington,” says Marty Clubb, co-owner and managing winemaker at L’Ecole No. 41, one of Walla Walla Valley’s founding wineries. Clubb says he’s not surprised to see the surge in interest.

“I’m not surprised at all. I’m actually a little surprised it took this long.”

Published on April 14, 2022
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